Canvassing Las Vegas, a Scary Moment Just Before Election Day

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Sign on the gate 2 doors from the home of our Las Vegas trouble-maker.

“Get out of my neighborhood. I have guns! If you two don’t leave right now I’m gonna go get them.”

It was the Saturday before election day and we were canvassing in Las Vegas in a sprawling cookie-cutter development – not a fancy one – with “front yards” of sand, not grass.  Worn Halloween figures and flags hung on the doors; fake spider webs stuck stubbornly to doorways and bushes.  My son Dan and I had just arrived and this was our first block.  It was the weekend before his birthday but both of us were beyond anxious about the election and hoped that going door-to-door, even more than making calls, might ease our souls a bit; at least we were doing something.

A moment earlier we’d been joking with this same 30-something guy over the neighborhood Halloween decorations. He asked what we were doing walking along his block and Dan said “Just talking to people.” “What about,” he asked. “What are you talking to people about?” “Hillary Clinton” I said, smiling at him – (that almost always works.)

Not this time. As we moved beyond him and on up the street, he was still yelling. “Get out!  Get out!”  Shaken, we decided to move up a block and try the next house on our tally sheet but he and his friend were making their way toward us, his friend telling him to “do something about it” if  he was going to yell anyway.  We fled.

I’ve seen angry crowds before, including demonstrators and police in Chicago in 1968.  I’d seen reports of scary Trump rally crowds too.  But this single person, focused on us with such rage, was a different kind of scary.  My heart was pounding as if I’d had way too much coffee.  As that response ebbed, I just got sad.  And then sadder.  “This isn’t how our country is supposed to be.” I kept saying to Dan.  He, wisely, was more concerned about danger than he was with analyzing the social meaning of all this.  He has a two-year-old son and was unsettled more for him, and for his wife; he needed to stay safe for them.

That was wise, but for me, the cruelty and rage of these two men, who’d turned on a dime from “We all DO love our Halloween here” to “Get the fuck out of my neighborhood” was painful on so many levels.

They weren’t the only ones.  At least two more times, the response to our question: “Have you voted yet?” was “I don’t do Democrats.  Go away,” declared with icy affect and stone cold eyes.

Saturday afternoon, as we waited at headquarters for a new neighborhood assignment, we were visited by Gabby Giffords, and her husband Mark Kelly, as well as Lucy McBath, one of the Mothers of the Movement, a sad sisterhood of moms whose children, her son Jordan Davis among them, had been killed by police officers.  The combination of the realities faced by these people and their efforts to reenforce the critical nature of every vote we could pull out of our assigned areas was a reminder of all that is at stake in our country.

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Enthusiastic volunteers wait for Gabby Gifford and husband Mark Kelly to address to the crowd.

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Lucy McBath, one of the Mothers of the Movement. Her son was Jordan Davis

Here’s the thing though:

This anger didn’t arise on its own. It’s been enabled, and not just by Mr. Trump and his allies and followers. Not all the angry people we met lived in lesser circumstances, with less education and income, than the norm but they do live differently from the people who govern them – and the people who cover them.

Listen to Columnist Sarah Smarsh in The Guardian

sarah-smarsh-sized*  Earlier this year, primary exit polls revealed that Trump voters were, in fact, more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000higher than that of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporterss.

*  Forty-four percent of them had college degrees, well above the national average of 33% among whites or 29% overall. . . .
These facts haven’t stopped pundits and journalists from pushing story after story about the white working class’s giddy embrace of a bloviating demagogue. . . .
*  The faces journalists do train the cameras on – hateful ones screaming sexist vitriol next to Confederate flags – must receive coverage but do not speak for the communities I know well.
*  One-dimensional stereotypes fester where journalism fails to tread. The last time I saw my native class receive substantial focus, before now, was over 20 years ago – not in the news but on the television show Roseanne, the fictional storylines of which remain more accurate than the musings of comfortable commentators in New York studios.

* In lieu of such coverage, media makers cast the white working class as a monolith and imply an old, treacherous story convenient to capitalism: that the poor are dangerous idiots.

Sure political passions on both sides are self-defined far differently than they’re defined from the outside. But if those who cover non-elites never go near them except to write about them; if they’re described more through sociology than personal stories, oddities instead of neighbors, the divisions we’ve experienced in this election will not ease.

We don’t go to the same schools, we don’t live in the same neighborhoods, we don’t share military/non-military histories and we don’t agree on politics. We also don’t have access to simple exchanges: in the carpool line, as room parents or scout leaders, at the supermarket or the gas station, at the playground or even at neighborhood Halloween events.

I grew up in a steel town on the Monongahela River.  I was the lawyer’s daughter; when we graduated I went to an Ivy League college that almost no one in my community had even heard of.  Several of the kids from my high school who went to college did so by joining the Army.  Because of Viet Nam, many of them never made it home to enroll.

We all went to the same dances and football games though, and parties in each other’s homes.  I know – know – that every day that I spent as a journalist I did a better job because I’d grown up among so many different kinds of kids, even though it was always clear my future was going to be different from many of theirs.

We need to be able to depend on journalists to translate a bit for us and right now that doesn’t happen enough. Of course no American should threaten another with a gun.  Of course not.  But we also need to be able to expect from those who deliver information to us that they’ve gone beyond their own experiences to learn how others live- and to share that understanding with the rest of us.

Big Birthday Memory #8: In Honor of Indiana and Donald Trump (Pigs, Lipstick, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin And The Movies: “Bob Roberts”, “A Face In The Crowd” And Willie Stark)

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from September 10, 2008.  This post appears now because it’s about demagogues and politics and the Indiana primary is today.

Of course by now we’ve all seen this.

I wrote much of what appears below without knowing just how to begin it – and those wacky Republicans solved my problem.  The response to this boilerplate Obama statement was to issue a vicious attack accusing him of sexism because of Palin’s convention speech “lipstick/hockey mom/pitbull” quote.  This despite the fact that the metaphor has often been used by Republicans including Dick Cheney – to say nothing of John McCain – look here:

The McCain campaign, not only in its choice of Sarah Palin but in how they use her, is leaning on very scary  tactics that are similar to the successful exploitation of voters illustrated by some of the most memorable characters in American political films.  Watch this trailer for Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts; see if it isn’t more familiar than you wish:

Creepy, isn’t it?  A demagogue making his way to the top by lying about his opponent and manipulating the alienation of the American people for his own ends.  That could never happen in real life, right?

Much, much earlier in film history, the beloved Andy Griffithplayed one of the scariest public personalities ever in A Face in the Crowd — written by Budd Schulberg and directed by On the Waterfront‘s Elia Kazan.  He’s not a politician but watch the trailer and see if it doesn’t seem familiar.  You have to watch until the end to get the full impact.

It’s so depressing — and enraging — to watch this campaign peddling pseudo-folksiness to win over its public.  It’s time for that to stop working in our country.  Stakes are too high to permit us (or the press) to fall for the most  approachable (and least honest) over the most excellent.

Finally, remember Robert Penn Warren’s remarkable novel, clearly based on Louisiana’s Huey LongAll the King’s Men?  It portrays a politician on his path to becoming a dangerous demagogue.  Yeah, I know it’s melodramatic but does it feel at all familiar?

Clearly we should consider these archetypal characters as cautionary tales; instructive representations of our future if we allow this kind of campaigning to prevail.  Movies are our largest export (unless video games have taken over while I wasn’t looking)  and often reflect, if not our truths, at least our ghosts, shadows and neuroses.  It gave us The Body Snatchers in the 50’s, Easy Rider in the 60’s and Working Girl and Wall Street in the 80’s.  It’s easy to be seductive, to manipulate language and truth; easy to pretend to be one of the people in order to win them. The vicious, craven strategies of this campaign – and Sarah Palin herself – are  perfect examples; John McCain, whom I used to admire, has allowed, no encouraged, this shameful campaigning in his name and surrendered all the positions of principal that he once held.  If we don’t want (another) Bob Roberts (He does remind me of GWBush) or a cynical populist pretender or a MS Wilie Stark as our government, it’s up to use to exercise vigilance and fierce commitment to fight off these transparent manipulations and to ensure that it does not happen.

Come See the Devil Baby

                               Mark Knopfler at the Edison Awards, 2003

The freaks’ll stay together, They’re a tight old crew
You look at them, And they look at you….

Devil Baby, by Mark Knopfler

This is a song about a freak show.  And why not?

Today I turned on the TV and found not one, but two “active shooter” situations going on in California.  UPDATE: One hour after I wrote this, a news conference in San Bernardino, scene of the first of these shooting events, reported 14 people dead and 14 wounded,  by “as many as three gunmen.”  

Before that was Colorado and the viciousness and cruelty of targeting Planned Parenthood — and women.  Before that was Paris.   And the Russian plane.  And always — Isis/Isil/DAESH/BokoHaram.   And of course, Donald Trump.  SO.

This is a song about a freak show. And that’s why.

ALSO we all know I love Mark Knopfler so there’s that.

Trump, Kennedy, Kemp and Les Miz (and Maybe Paris)

Donald_Trump_Laconia smDonald Trump is important.  Maybe he’s channeling Huey Long, maybe Lonesome Rhodes, maybe just “the Donald,” but despite his xenophobia and thinly veiled racist take on immigrants, he has spun a new American dream and captured those who have been without one for a long time.

Despite those excluded, whom Ta-Nehesi Coates describes so well, the belief that the dream exists is a gigantic part of the American story even though, for many, it’s faded from view. Today, in the shadow of the attacks in Paris, I wonder whether his message will thrive or wither in the face of such horror and fear.

Jack KempTeddy Kennedy smWith all that in mind, what does Trump have to do with John Valjean? What did the story mean to Jack Kemp (there’s a new biography ) and Teddy Kennedy (there’s a new book about him, too) both of whom, from opposite parties and ideologies, saw Les Miz multiple times? Can what spoke to them teach or maybe comfort us as we recoil from another bloody revolution in the streets of Paris?  Tell me that this* is not what they – and we – are feeling today.

dan kidThis little boy is now a father, but when he was six, we took him, along with his brother, to see Les Miz. At the end, he dissolved in my lap in tears, a wise child who understood, as so many do, especiallu today, what we may have lost and must struggle to recover? Listen and then, you decide.

*When Les Miz opened in New York, both Teddy Kennedy and Jack Kemp saw it multiple times. It might have been about a revolution, but it was everyone’s revolution:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Then join in the fight that will give you
The right to be free!

Is 2016 the New 1968? Bernie Sanders, The Donald and Eugene McCarthy

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Election Night, New Hampshire Primary, 1968

They called us a lot of things.  “The Children’s Crusade” (an awful lot of us were college kids,)” “revolutionaries,” “dangerous  idealists,” sometimes even “traitors.”

Dump LBJ1We were the ones who responded to Allard Lowenstein’s call to”Dump Johnson” by drafting an anti-war candidate,  because, as he told us, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.” We signed on to help to bring down President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War with the only person willing to run, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy.  And yeah, that’s me with that same Senator Eugene McCarthy. In 1968, in the middle of the night, in New Hampshire, when we kind of won* the New Hampshire primary.

Now observers of the movements behind both Senator Bernie Sanders and the Donald Trump/Ben Carson Republicans, have compared those campaigns to our efforts, and to some extent, to the rest of the 1960’s anti-war movement.  So.  What do we think?

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SANDERS Crowd, Phoenix, AZ

 

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TRUMP crowd, Mobile AL

In 1968: We were desperate and felt we were losing our country – or at least its soul and moral place in the world.  We were doing it in someone else’s country and with cruel tools like napalm and cluster bombs.

2016: These campaigners, too, are desperate, and whether from right or left, feel they are losing their country.  Consider Sanders’ outrage and economic populism, calling out an economy he views as not only unjust but un-American; consider the huge response.

Consider the fevered reaction to Trump’s pledges to “Make America Great Again”, not only through his business acumen (and some horrifying immigration changes and racial provocation) but also through economic ideas that even Paul Krugman reluctantly acknowledges aren’t dumb.

1968: Vietnam was a life and death issue; the draft brought it home to every American, especially the young — and their parents and teachers and, gradually, much of the rest of America.

It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all — Phil Ochs, I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore

2016: Today, the life and death issue is the disintegration of the great American middle class that has long built and sustained this country (to say nothing of enabling a consumer economy that sustained growth for decades.) It’s a brutal blow to what Americans see the their birthright.  We all know the symptoms – underemployment, disappearing job security and benefits, and this, from a 2014 Pew report:

But after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.

1968: We had very little faith in institutions (“the Establishment,”) from the government to the police to political parties, gigantic, impersonal universities, media that covered us with cruel disdain, and of course, the military.  With limited experience, we didn’t really understand the complicated issues that faced each of these entities – and our country – and exacerbated both its problems and every tragic mistake.  And though we were right about much of what we believed, we were pretty cavalier in the belief we knew how to fix things.

Although I was immunized by my steel town history, shared with kids who would never see a college or a white-collar job, many of my peers saw my classmates and neighbors simply as “hard hats” – lesser beings who needed us to instruct them.  Many didn’t consider the gap between our privileged lives and their own.

We also were enormously suspicious of a military governed by law, tradition and accountability to a commander-in-chief influenced not only by the legendary “best and the brightest” but also by a legacy including Soviet power, the “loss” of China to Communism and the fear that it might be replicated – and a political and personal story that was rapidly becoming obsolete.  That perceived rigidity and “Dr. Strangelove” stereotypes governed us.

2016: That same distrust of the Establishment informs the Tea Party but it has also touched also many, many other Republicans/Conservatives.  As one commentator observed: “They deeply believe that President Obama has ruined America.”  Beyond their rage at him come the usual suspects: politicians who care only whether they lost their own jobs, hopelessness, inability to pay for their children’s education, a cynical, uncaring media, the disappearance of decent, well-paying jobs, an emerging multicultural America where it’s hard to find one’s place and a chaotic present from Ferguson to Syria to the Hungarian border.

The Sanders people share a good deal of that distrust, beginning with the economic inequality, frozen wages and dead-end jobs at the heart of his message, but not ending there.  Add suspicion of the mainstream media (MSM), the police, college costs and crippling student loans, racism, sexism, union-busting and all the rest.

So yes, there’s plenty of common ground between that turbulent year and today.  And it’s hard to underestimate  how far we might have gone back then if we’d had the Internet.

Even so, I can’t vote YES on this one.  The initial 60’s activists believed in so much more.  So many moments have been declared the day “America lost its innocence” and certainly they chipped away at it: Vietnam, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the Chicago Democratic convention, Watergate, Irangate, the Clinton scandals, Oklahoma City, Challenger, the 1980 election and, of course, 9/11.  Those who have chosen action since those shattering events are almost a different species – at least those 40 and younger.

These losses also inform Trump and Tea Party voters, I think, as they try to turn back the clock and reconstitute an American that is no more.

As for the left, after years during which unions were decimated, blue-collar wages eviscerated, voting rights emasculated, women’s rights torn away and racial and religious tensions breaking every heart…  well, it sounds familiar but it’s so much tougher because what’s happening now has moved our country backward and the left is fighting to hang onto or reclaim lost rights, not win new ones.

It really doesn’t matter anyway.  Things look bad right now, and optimism, belief in the possibility of positive change… do you see it anywhere?

*Actually we only got 42% of the vote but that was so high against such a powerful politician and Democratic machine that it really was a “win” and caused him, a month or so later, to declare he would not “seek nor will I accept” the nomination to run for a second term.